Recently, a small group of us had the privilege of a tour round Nottingham Central Fire Station and the Nottingham Blitz locations where firemen and civil defence personnel lost their lives, led by David Needham, a retired senior officer of NFRS, and author of ‘Battle of the Flames‘, an account of the Blitz in Nottingham. David was also instrumental in creating the memorial to those firemen, ARP wardens, and other Civil Defence workers who lost their lives in the line of duty.
We started with a tour of the Central Fire Station in Nottingham, built in the late 1930s, when the stormclouds of war were already gathering. It was built with a huge 2-level air-raid shelter in the sandstone underneath, and was shared with the Police Force, as Nottingham was a ‘police fire service’. More recently, the shelter has been used as a training space for firefighters using Breathing Apparatus, and learning how to avoid getting lost in smoke. in a dark building.
David pointed out the remains of the ‘autostart’ system, built into the building, which automatically started the appliances, so that they were running ready for the firemen as the ‘bells went down’, but this was stopped after a vehicle was left in gear, and drove itseld out of the automatically opened doors into the street! How embarrassing.
The building has a lovely staircase, at the bottom of which are two stone lions, one awake and the other asleep, representing the start of two 12-hour shifts, replacing the 24-hour duty system, which is unthinkable now.
We saw shrapnel damage from when the University building across the road took a direct hit. We heard how on the night of ‘Moonlight Sonata’, the glow of Coventry burning could be seen from the top of the training tower, which was one of the tallest buildings in Nottingham at the time.
We walked through Nottingham, seeing where the Moot Hall took a direct hit, and where the AFS had an appliance stationed away from the fire station, to make sure that everything would not be lost if that took a hit. We saw where a single fireman went into a burning building alone and without backup, and saved the building. We had lunch in the grounds of St Mary’s church, again saved by the bravery of AFS firemen after an incendiary landed in the timber roof and got hold. We say the porch of the Lacemarket Theatre, which is all that remains after the building was destroyed. And we had a chance to reflect, and to admire the Nottinghamshire Firefighters Memorial, and look on the names of those who died. In the afternoon, we would see the very places many those people were killed.
After lunch, we went on a driving tour, taking in the Lady Bay area, which took a real pasting, despite being purely residential. Unfortunately, it was just across the river from a lot of industry. There are numerous gaps in terraced streets, with a single modern house filling the space where two or three terraced houses used to be. And there were buildings peppered with shrapnel damage.
We made our way to the corner of Edale road, and were surprised to see that the Dale Cinema had recently been demolished. Alfred Sabin, a Firewatcher for the National Fire Service had stood on that very spot on 24th July 1941, and David wrote: “On a cloudy July night bombers attacked, their target was thought to be the railway bridge on Sneinton Dale at the Edale Road junction. A number of high explosive and incendiary devices were dropped damaging the Dale Cinema, and the Edale Road School. As Alfred Sabin, a Firewatcher, took shelter in the doorway of the cinema, the blast from one of the bombs propelled the stump of a spiked railing from the school across the road. It struck him in the throat, killing him instantly”. A classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Six inches to the left or the right, and he would have been OK. Just round the corner, we saw where a mine has destroyed a whole row of terraced houses, with half the doorway arch of one still visible.
In Sneinton, we looked down an alleyway between two houses to see the entrance to an old air-raid shelter in the back garden, cut into the sandstone. David Needham was the officer in charge of an incident where 4 children were trapped by a fire in the old shelter, and two firefighters were in serious danger as their air was running out. Using his knowledge of history, and the fact that air raid shelters always had two or more entrances, on multiple levels if possible, he sent some other firemen round the back streets to the top of the cliff to look for the other entrance. A little girl asked them, “are you looking for where the smoke is coming out?”, and showed them the other entrance, an action which saved the lives of four children and two firefighters. That just shows the value of knowing your history! [NFRS take note – don’t destroy everything that is not ‘modern’!]
Perhaps the most poignant was seeing the locations of the two air raid shelters that took direct hits, the Dakeyne Street factory, and the Co-op bakery, where 21 and 49 people lost their lives respectively.
We finished the tour at Wilford Hill cemetery, where we saw the memorial to those who died in the Co-op bakery, and a row of graves, many of which simply bore the inscription, ‘Unidentified’.
Thank you, David, for a memorable day out.